With 2016 rules in flux, Sprint Cup drivers asking whether the 2015 changes are working


CONCORD, N.C. – The last time NASCAR’s garage warriors gathered at Charlotte Motor Speedway, there was bubbly chatter over the encouraging signs of a proposed rules package for the 2016 season.

Two months later, the Sprint Cup Series has returned to the 1.5-mile track with a decidedly different tone about where its cars are headed next season.

After unveiling a two-step process last year that would include another reduction in downforce for 2016, NASCAR has backed off and said it might leave the 2015 rules (which featured a drop of 125 horsepower and roughly 30 percent less downforce) in place next year. Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said there was some pushback from teams worried about absorbing the costs of the rule changes.

After floating the idea of using the 2016 rules in Saturday’s Sprint All-Star Race, NASCAR scrapped the plan last month. Several Goodyear tests of the proposed 2016 alignment were eliminated this week, leaving only an October test at Auto Club Speedway on the books to try next year’s rules.

A March 10 session at Charlotte was the most recent test of the intended rules for 2016. Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr., Aric Alimrola and JJ Yeley. O’Donnell then said the goal was to develop ways to decrease corner speeds, which have spiked as much as 18 mph this season because drivers are on the throttle longer with reduced horsepower. That often decreases the opportunities for passing in the corners.

Kahne said Friday that he was pleased with how his No. 5 Chevrolet handled during the test.

“I like driving the car by myself way better than the car we have right now,” he said. “You could actually lift (off the accelerator) and move around on the track.

“It was kind of like it was back in 2004 or 2005 with the characteristics of the car and how it was handling. I was remembering things as I was driving. I was like, ‘Man, I used to have this feel.’ We don’t have that feel anymore with all the downforce we have.”

Kahne said, though, there were limits to how much could be learned about the new package in traffic with only four cars participating in the test. Truex said the tire also wasn’t optimum for judging the package.

“I think it was a good direction,” Truex said. “I just don’t think we had the right tire for the package. We didn’t have the right tire; we didn’t have enough cars. It was hard to gauge exactly what was better about it or what was worse about it.

“The four of us that were out there trying to race and see how the car ran in traffic, we didn’t get the feel that we thought we would with less downforce. The off-throttle time was a little bit more, but it seemed like the guy with clean air had more advantage than what we had with the 2015 rules. So, there was nothing clear. I wish we could have done it with more cars and had some more tires for options to really get to work on it because it had some things. The speeds were slower in the middle of the corner, which is what everybody is looking for. We just didn’t have the combination and the amount of guys to really put it to use.”

The feedback on the 2015 package has been a mixed bag, particularly on the 1.5-mile tracks that comprise the bulk of the schedule and where the rules are aimed at enhancing passing. In the four 1.5-mile races this season at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway, green-flag passes dramatically have risen nearly 40 percent – 12,669 in 2015 vs. 9,172 at comparative events in 2014. Lead changes also are up slightly in those four races (91 in 2015 vs. 85 last year)

But the Chevrolets of Jimmie Johnson (wins at Atlanta, Texas, Kansas) and Kevin Harvick (Las Vegas) have dominated the races, and several drivers have grumbled that an overreliance on aerodynamics still is hampering action and putting the leader at a distinct advantage. Friday’s Sprint Showdown at Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval featured segment winner Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer pulling away from the pack and cruising to easy wins.

“I absolutely believe the center-of-the-corner speeds are way too high,” Carl Edwards said last week at Kansas. “I feel like we should be out of the gas a lot more.

“I feel like our whole sport is based on guys racing stock cars around and manhandling the cars and being able to run close. I feel like we’ve gone farther and farther away from that because of all of the knowledge and engineering and the dependence on aero. I know NASCAR wants the same thing we all want. We want the best racing in the world and want it to be exciting, but I do fear we are getting to a point where the cars are so easy to drive and so dependent on clean air and going so fast and relying on engineering, that we are really losing the most fun part of it. I hope NASCAR continues to look at a much less aero-dependent package.”

Brad Keselowski said NASCAR’s quest to improve racing is perpetual.

“You have to keep a vision always,” the 2012 series champion said this week. “The racing can always be better. There’s no question about that. In that spirit, we should always keep working on it. To not work on it is to take a step backward because the teams will always iterate the cars to decrease the quality of competition. That’s our job. This sport requires a year-by-year reset to nullify the damage we do as teams to competition. It’s in itself ‘Spy Vs. Spy’ between the teams and NASCAR. It brings up an interesting discussion of how do you do that every year.

“It seems to me that in the five-and-a-half years I’ve spent in Sprint Cup, that discussion continues to get harder and harder every year with more and more disagreement about how to achieve a strong balance. There are certain things I would like to see for sure that I think can be achieved with cost but reasonable cost, but at this time there doesn’t appear to be enough collaboration to make that happen.’’

Clint Bowyer said the current corner speeds are “exactly opposite of what all the drivers were asking for and hoping for. … You need more off-throttle time to create a racing environment on the race track. If you’re wide open and you’re not lifting, I don’t know how you’re going to get around that car in front of you when they’re doing the same.”

Matt DiBenedetto wins NASCAR Truck race at Talladega

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Chevy Silverado 250
Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images
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Matt DiBenedetto won Saturday’s 250-mile NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Talladega Superspeedway on a day pockmarked by numerous accidents, including a major one at the finish.

As the field swept to the finish line in overtime, a multi-car crash developed as Corey Heim lost control of his truck in the trioval. Several trucks crashed approaching the finish as the caution flag flew.

NASCAR officials studied video of the final lap to determine that DiBenedetto was in front when the caution lights were turned on, although Bret Holmes appeared to beat him to the finish line by inches. When caution lights appear, the field is frozen at that point, so any position changes after the caution are irrelevant.

MORE: Talladega Truck results

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The last lap was the only one led by DiBenedetto, who has been racing in NASCAR national series since 2009 but scored his first win.

Following DiBenedetto, a non-playoff driver, at the finish were Ben Rhodes, Holmes, Ryan Preece and Christian Eckes.

With one race remaining in the Round of 8, Ty Majeski has locked in a spot in the final four at Phoenix. Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Rhodes are above the cutline. Below the line are Stewart Friesen, Eckes, John Hunter Nemechek and Grant Enfinger.

MORE: Denny Hamlin says NASCAR needs leadership changes

A string of accidents left only two playoff drivers — Eckes and Rhodes — in the top 10 with 10 laps remaining.

Carson Hocevar dropped out of the lead group with five laps to go when he lost a tire, prompting a caution flag and pushing the race into overtime.

The race was marred by a fiery crash in the early going as Jordan Anderson‘s truck exploded in flames while running in the top five in a tight draft.

Anderson steered the truck to the inside as flames fired up on both sides of the vehicle. The truck crashed into the inside wall even as Anderson climbed from the driver-side window. He was transported to an area hospital.

On Lap 35, Lawless Alan hit the wall hard after his right front tire blew. He was evaluated and released from the infield medical center.

Another dangerous situation developed on Lap 63 as numerous trucks pitted at the same time under green. As Hailie Deegan attempted to stop in her pit, one of the crew members lost control of a tire, and it rolled into traffic and onto the grass area separating pit road from the track. A Deegan crew member chased down the tire in the grass and later was ejected from the track by NASCAR officials for a safety violation.

On Lap 79, Enfinger’s truck blew a tire and slammed the wall, starting a crash that collected Tanner Gray, Johnny Sauter and Austin Wayne Self.

Stage 1 winner: John Hunter Nemechek

Stage 2 winner: Chandler Smith

Who had a good race: Matt DiBenedetto had been waiting a very long time for this winning moment. … Alabama driver Bret Holmes almost won in front of the home crowd. He finished third.

Who had a bad race: Jordan Anderson had one of the most frightening crashes of the season, bailing out of his flaming truck after it caught fire in the middle of a pack of drafting trucks. … Playoff drivers John Hunter Nemechek (finished 24th) and Grant Enfinger (29th) had rough outings.

Next: The Truck Series is off for three weeks before racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway Oct. 22. The series’ final race is scheduled Nov. 4 at Phoenix Raceway.


Denny Hamlin calls out NASCAR leadership for Next Gen concerns


TALLADEGA, Ala. — Denny Hamlin cites “bad leadership” from NASCAR for creating a car that he says needs to be redesigned after two drivers have suffered concussion-like symptoms in crashes this year.

Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have been most outspoken about the safety of the car this year. Chase Elliott spoke up Saturday about how “disappointed” he is “that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in.” 

Hamlin said other drivers must join them in being heard.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway.

NASCAR had not offered a response to Hamlin’s comments as of Saturday afternoon.

Driver frustrations with the Next Gen car continue to grow, as Alex Bowman became the second driver to be forced to miss at least a race for concussion-like symptoms. 

Bowman crashed last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway and experienced headaches and other symptoms of a concussion earlier this week, according to Hendrick Motorsports President Jeff Andrews. 

Bowman went to a doctor on Thursday and the team announced that day Bowman would not race Sunday. No timetable for his return has been announced. Noah Gragson will drive Bowman’s car Sunday.

Kurt Busch, who drives for Hamlin’s 23XI Racing, continues to be out because of a head injury he suffered after he crashed July 23 at Pocono Raceway. Busch said this week that he is “hopeful” of racing this season.

Hamlin unleashed a torrent of criticisms Saturday about the car and series officials for an issue he said drivers brought up more than a year ago.

Asked how the sport got to this point with the car, Hamlin said: “Bad leadership.”

Asked how to avoid the same thing from happening, Hamlin said: “New leadership.”

As for the changes that need to be made in NASCAR leadership, Hamlin said: “I don’t know. You can start at the top and work your way down.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on the rear clip and rear bumper of the car. That’s an improvement that could be made to the car for next season. A complaint about the car is how stiff the rear is and how rear-end impacts have felt more violent to drivers this season. The crash test is the first since a full car crash test last December. 

For Hamlin, the rear is only a start to what needs to be done to the car.

“The car needs to be redesigned,” Hamlin said. “It needs a full redesign. It can still be called Next Gen, but it needs to be redesigned.

“It needs to be redesigned everywhere. Front, middle, rear, competition, the whole thing needs to be redesigned. We’ve got a tough Martinsville race coming up. It’s going to be tough. This thing is just going to get exposed about how bad it races. That’s just a part of it. Competition and safety, we’d like to have it all better, but certainly we just took a step back in safety and competition this year.”

Hamlin also knows it’s too late for a redesign for next year.

“If I were to run this and say, ‘All right, we’re going to have a new car,’ we’d already be done with testing right now for next year’s car,” Hamlin said. “We haven’t even begun. We’re just way too behind. This whole sport is behind.”

But Hamlin said it was “feasible” for NASCAR to do a redesign of the car.

“It’s just (that) NASCAR has to concede that they’re not capable and let the teams do it,” he said.

That’s not likely. NASCAR has a contract with the suppliers of each part and those deals, while they can be broken under certain circumstances, are multi-year deals. 

Hamlin said drivers brought up concerns about the car last year. There had been concerns about the car and how hard the impact felt after William Byron’s crash in testing at Auto Club Speedway in March 2020.

“We actually, as the drivers, didn’t do that docu-series last year because we didn’t feel comfortable with this Next Gen car and the lack of the safety testing that had been done before they started announcing that they were going to run it,” Hamlin said. “We threw up red flags over a year ago and they just didn’t respond. They just kept pushing this car has got to be on the track at all cost. At all cost.”

In an interview last month, John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president of Racing Innovation, told NBC Sports that he feels one misunderstanding with the car is the collaboration between NASCAR, teams and manufacturers.

“I think that sometimes when you read the driver quotes and the team feedback, crew chiefs are posting things on Twitter, it creates the sense of NASCAR vs. them vs. the world,” Probst said. 

“Really, it isn’t like that. I wish people could see how well we actually do work with the engineers on these teams, sorting through the problems.

“I feel like we work hand-in-hand with them, but a lot of times when it gets to the public eye, for whatever reason, or if it’s in the heat of the moment, it comes across as though ‘NASCAR is making us do this,’ or ‘This is the dumbest thing ever,’ but I think, in reality, that is so far from the truth.”

Jordan Anderson in fiery crash in Talladega Truck race


NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver Jordan Anderson was airlifted to an area hospital after being involved in a fiery crash during Saturday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Anderson’s car caught fire in the middle of a pack of drafting trucks. Flames burst from three areas around the truck as Anderson tried to slow the vehicle and move onto the track apron. The truck hit the inside wall. Anderson climbed from the vehicle in a cloud of smoke as it came to a stop.

Anderson, 31 and a resident of Forest Acres, S.C., was transported to the infield medical center before being airlifted. NASCAR confirmed Anderson’s trip to the hospital.

Fox Sports reported that a team member said Anderson had burns.

Anderson is a part-time driver in the Truck Series. He has a top finish of 14th this season.

Starting lineup for Talladega Cup race: Christopher Bell wins pole


Six playoff drivers will start in the top 10 for Sunday’s 500-mile NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Christopher Bell won the pole for the race Saturday with a speed of 180.591 miles per hour. He was followed by Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola and Chase Briscoe.

MORE: Talladega Cup starting lineup

MORE: Talladega Cup qualifying results

Playoff drivers starting in the top 10 are Bell, Larson, Hamlin, Briscoe, Ross Chastain (sixth) and William Byron (ninth).

Noah Gragson, who qualified seventh, is replacing Alex Bowman, who is sitting out the race with concussion-like symptoms.

Ryan Blaney, starting 19th, is the lowest playoff driver on the starting grid.